Thursday, October 30, 2008

Newbery: The Upstairs Room

I have mixed feelings about writing this post. On one hand, it doesn’t feel really right to critique someone’s Holocaust memoir. On the other hand, no one’s writing should be immune from examination and critique. So, here it goes.

Johanna Reiss was just a young girl when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands. Due to their Jewish ancestry, the family was in immediate danger. Through the kindness of friends, Johanna and her sister spent three years hiding in the room of a peasant family’s house.

Reiss details the contrast between fear and the mind-numbing mundanity of those three years effectively. Young readers grasp the ever present danger of the girls’ discovery through her writing.

The Upstairs Room is littered with mild expletives that would make quite a few parents I know unhappy. It’s nothing stronger than d---, but it’s frequent enough, and coupled with the full expletive, that would make some pause. Now, children’s literature does occasionally (but rarely) contain this expletive (Bridge to Terabithia comes to mind, but it’s only once, and it’s after the father learns that his child’s friend has died). Admittedly, a child reading this book will come across things more disturbing (such as the Holocaust, but not in extraordinary detail) than that. It is jarring, though.

Secondly, the writing is a little choppy and simplistic. I can’t quote the exact sentence, but basically, the Nazis are described as being “mean" at the beginning of the book.

Now that I feel awful for criticizing Weiss’s memoir, I must add that I believe that any Holocaust memoir is worth reading. Weiss has an incredible story to tell, and she tells it very well. She was one of the first to write about her ordeal for children, and her work should be remembered and commemorated.

The Upstairs Room was a Newbery Honor recipient in 1973.

If you are interested in other children’s books about the Holocaust, read my Holocaust Remembrance Month post from last year. I would also recommend The Devil in Vienna, The Night Crossing, and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.

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